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September 22, 2010

Questioning the merits of war through books

Washington is abuzz today amid reports that Bob Woodward’s first book on the Obama administration will reveal division amongst top White House officials about whether the U.S. military effort in Afghanistan can succeed.

As Peter Baker explains in today’s New York Times, “The book, “Obama’s Wars,” by the journalist, Bob Woodward, depicts an administration deeply torn over the war in Afghanistan even as the president agreed to triple troop levels there amid suspicion that he was being boxed in by the military. Mr. Obama’s top White House adviser on Afghanistan and his special envoy for the region are described as believing the strategy will not work.” The Washington Post’s coverage of the book portrays the president as determined to ensure the United States was not mired in Afghanistan, particularly on the heels of Iraq war. 

The Post also captures a president and his military frequently at odds.

Woodward’s book is one of many coming out this fall in which key decision makers retell their role in the run up to the wars, namely Iraq.  Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has a book coming out, Known and Unknown. So do former President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.  They will all attempt to redeem themselves for the sake of history, all insisting they asked the right questions.

H. Hugh Shelton, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, also has a book coming out, Without Hesitation: The Odyssey of an American Warrior, in which he lays the blame at Gen. Peter Pace, Sen. John McCain and Donald Rumsfeld, among others. (As an aside, you can find draft copies of book throughout the Pentagon, namely in the offices of staffers who are hurriedly reading it and making sure it doesn’t bash their boss. I know because I have seen them do it myself.)

There is a connective thread that runs through all of them; Key questions about the veracity of the reasons for the wars, the need to engage in them and the likelihood of success don’t come up until after U.S. troops are put into harm’s way. Obama has increased U.S. troop presence by 250 percent. And now it seems, according to this book, there are serious doubts about the war itself by the very people who ordered more troops into Afghanistan.

Last month, the administration declared the end of major combat operations in Iraq. And now, through these books, former Bush administration officials will attempt to defend whether it was worth it. 

These books offer far more detail than most people will ever learn about the decisions behind these wars.

More than 5,000 U.S. troops have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan; another 30,000 plus have been injured. The number of Iraqis and Afghans killed and injured far surpass those numbers. I wonder when it became acceptable to engage in a serious debate about war, not in real time, but in books, precisely when it is too late to save and protect the lives of troops, Afghans and Iraqis alike.

September 21, 2010

A History of MI6

Exploding file cabinets, cross-dressing secret agents ... and, at the outset, a shoestring budget. McClatchy's Bradenton Herald carries an AP report on the new secret history of Britain's foreign intelligence agency.


September 17, 2010

Iraqi public opinion turns sour

The International Republican Institute on Thursday released the latest in a series of surveys of public opinion in Iraq. We did a quick read-through _ a lot of interesting data there, but two findings stand out.

First, Iraqis have a grimmer view of the future than they did a year ago. Fully 59% of those interviewed said things in Iraq are going in the wrong direction, compared with 41% who said they were going in the right direction. That's a fairly marked turn-about from December 2009, when a bare majority, 51%, said things were going in the right direction, compared with 43% who thought otherwise.

Second, and just as interesting, Iraqis now cite problems with basic services, rather than security, as their No. 1 concern. Last December, the leading concerns were security (43%), basic services (23%); and unemployment (11%). In the latest poll, the figures are basic services (66%), security (24%) and unemployment (8%).  ... The big change appears to reflect the improved security picture in Iraq, along with frustration that no new government has formed, even though national elections were in March.

The poll was conducted from June 3-July 3, and was based on interviews with 2,988 adults in regions across the country.

The full data is here, and IRI's own analysis here.


September 09, 2010

Federal courts judge rules Don't Ask Don't Tell unconstitutional

The Pentagon has been meticulously surveying its forces about the prospects of repealing Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. The department says it is an effort to make sure that if Congress does indeed repeal the law, the Defense Department is ready to enact the change properly. But truthfully, the Pentagon is also buying time in part for the Obama administration to get through November’s mid term elections.

It appears the courts are moving the issue along in spite of the department’s effort for a protracted discussion. Today, a federal court judge in California ruled Don’t Ask Don’t Tell unconstitutional. The Log Cabin Republicans, the largest group of gay and lesbian Republicans, brought the case against the Defense Department in 2004.


U.S. District Judge Virginia Phillips said the ban violates the First Amendment. Here is part of what the ruling said:


The Don't Ask, Don't Tell Act …. denies homosexuals serving in the Armed Forces the right to enjoy "intimate conduct" in their personal relationships. The Act denies them the right to speak about their loved ones while serving their country in uniform; it punishes them with discharge for writing a personal letter, in a foreign language, to a person of the same sex with whom they shared an intimate relationship before entering military service; it discharges them for including information in a personal communication from which an unauthorized reader might discern their homosexuality. In order to justify the encroachment on these rights, Defendants faced the burden at trial of showing the Don't Ask, Don't Tell Act was necessary to significantly further the Government's important interests in military readiness and unit cohesion. Defendants failed to meet that burden. Thus, Plaintiff, on behalf of its members, is entitled to judgment in its favor on the first claim in its First Amended Complaint for violation of the substantive due process rights guaranteed under the Fifth Amendment.


More than 13,500 service members have been kicked out of the military under the 17-year existence of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. The ruling suggests that the Pentagon and Congress need to act sooner rather than later. You can read the complete 85-page ruling here

State Department: Americans overseas face risks from Quran burning

The State Department has just issued a worldwide travel warning, alerting Americans overseas to the possibility of violent demonstrations and reprisals if a Florida pastor goes through with stated plans to burn copies of the Quran, Islam's holy book, on Saturday.

"The Department of State is issuing this Travel Alert to caution U.S. citizens of the potential for anti-U.S. demonstrations in many countries in response to stated plans by a church in Florida to burn Qurans on the anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks," says the warning, known as a Worldwide Caution.

"Demonstrations, some violent, have already taken place in several countries, including Afghanistan and Indonesia, in response to media reports of the church's plans," it says. "The potential for further protests and demonstrations, some of which may turn violent, remains high.  We urge you to pay attention to local reaction to the situation, and to avoid areas where demonstrations may take place."

U.S. leaders from President Barack Obama to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Afghanistan commander Gen. David Petraeus have spoken out against the event, planned by the Rev. Terry Jones, pastor of the Gainesville, Fla.-based Dove Outreach Center.

Clinton on Wednesday sent a cable to all U.S. diplomatic posts overseas, instructing ambassadors and their staffs to interact with foreign governments and publics to convey the message that the Quran-burning, if it takes place, does not reflect U.S. values.

September 07, 2010

Gen. McChrystal's seminar syllabus

Over the weekend, the Yale Daily News published the syllabus for ousted Afghanistan commander Stanley's McChrystal's seminar, "Leadership in Operation"(INRL 690) As a graduate student myself, the reading coursework load is relatively light (I say that out of jealously more than anything.) Most intriguing are the titles of some of the lectures, which clearly reflect the peaks and pitfalls of his career. On Nov. 16, the former general will give a lecture titled “Communicating the Story – the Media Environment.” There are lectures on “Navigating Politics” and ““Coping With Failure.”


The lecture series seems to center around McChrystal’s professional experience rather than a broader look at how military leaders have performed during past American wars.


Here is the full list of lecture titles:
7th September 2010: “The Importance of Leading Differently – The Changing Operating Environment”

14th September 2010: “Case Study: The Changing Military 1972-2010”

21st September 2010: “Role of a Leader”

27th September 2010 (6-8pm): “Coping With Failure”

28th September 2010 (Assignment 1 Due): “Building Teams – What Makes Some Great”

5th October 2010: “Driving Change and Operating Differently”

12th October 2010: “Navigating Politics”

19th October 2010: “Making Difficult Decisions Pt. 1 – How We Decide”

26th October 2010 (Assignment 2 Due): “Making Difficult Decisions Pt. 2 – Dealing With Risk”

2nd November 2010: “Loyalty, Trust and Relationships”

9th November 2010: “Dealing With Cultural Differences”

16th November 2010: “Communicating the Story – the Media Environment”

30th November 2010 (Assignment 3 Due): “The Leader – the Personal Impact of Responsibility, Notoriety and Other Realities”

7th December 2010: “The Future Leader”

A research assistant for the course told the Yale Daily News that "while students enrolled in the class are free to talk with the media about their impressions of the class, the seminar itself will be off the record." If only such stipulations had been so clearly articulated when a Rolling Stone reporter came to interview the general and his staff, how different things might be now. 

USA’s AABs working BTW ISF in post RDOF in Iraq

I was in Iraq recently with the Secretary of Defense for the change of command ceremony and what struck me beyond the pomp and pageantry was how much things had changed. In a way, the U.S. military bases now look like much of Baghdad – stripped down and abandoned.  All that equipment moved out from when a record 170,000 troops were stationed there. What remains are 50,000 U.S. troops charged primarily with training their Iraqi counterparts. They patrol the streets of Iraqi cities that are too often are filled with empty homes, left behind by more than 2 million exiles and thousands killed.


The military didn’t just change its mission.  It added a whole new collection of acronyms to the Iraq war lexicon. I was only in Iraq overnight and here are the ones I came across.

ISF—Iraqi security forces, an oldie but now a staple of any acronym-filled conversation.  The U.S. military, mostly the USA (U.S. Army) is there to work….

BTW—by, with and through the Iraqis. Because, you see, there are no longer U.S. combat forces in Iraq. They are….

AAB—Advise and Assist brigades. And they are now in charge now that the United States has completed its….

RDOF—Responsible Drawdown of Forces.


I guess it would not feel like a new mission in Iraq without new terms to describe it. 

September 01, 2010

Gamal's in town

With concerns about the health of 82-year-old Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, and a widespread expectation in Egypt that he will try to hand off power to his son Gamal, we decided to find out if Gamal accompanied his father to Washington for this week's Middle East peace extravaganza.

The word from the Egyptian Embassy is that, yes he is - but he's not participating in the peace talks themselves.

Embassy spokesman Karim Haggag told us by email:  "Gamal is here accompanying President Mubarak as he has done numerous times in the past. He is not part of the official delegation and will therefore not be participating in any of the official meetings."

The official delegation, Haggag said, is: 

- Foreign Minister Ahmad Aboulgheit
- Information Minister Anas El Fiki
- Chief of Intelligence Omar Suleiman
- Chief of the Presidential Cabinet Zakariya Azmi




"Nukes & Spooks" is written by McClatchy correspondents Jonathan S. Landay (national security and intelligence), Warren P. Strobel (foreign affairs and the State Department), and Nancy Youssef (Pentagon).

jon, nancy & warren

Landay, Youssef and Strobel.

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